In defense of the good old-fashioned exam

Take-home exams just aren’t the same
Photo by Patrik Axelsson on Flickr

I love almost everything about being a professor. Teaching, research—I even look forward to department meetings.

But I hate grading exams. And just as I become a flat-tax advocate every April when I’m trying to locate receipts and hoping I don’t owe the government money, every December I harbor fantasies of getting rid of exams altogether.

Many of my colleagues in the arts are way ahead of me on this, either giving no exams at all, or giving students an extra, essay-like assignment commonly called a “take-home” exam. But since you take it home and have an extended time to do it, it’s not really an exam in the traditional sense.

Those who have given up on what I call the in-room exam, seem liberated by their choice. One colleague of mine told me she couldn’t continue imposing such “Foucaultian discipline” on her students (that’s academic-speak for being really, really mean). Meanwhile blogging professor Michael Bérubé reports a “light bulb moment” when he realized he didn’t have to give in-class exams at all. So he stopped.

I can see the appeal. On the professor’s side, there’s no awful handwriting to try to decipher and, one hopes, the answers on the take-home would be better informed and more fully thought out. For the student, there’s less pressure and no chance of the nightmare scenario of accidentally getting the day wrong or sleeping in on that crucial morning. Moreover, some students have disabilities that make the in-room exam difficult or impossible.

But for all that, and though I do occasionally provide take-homes for extraordinary circumstances, I cannot bring myself to give up on the traditional in-room exam.

For one thing, I’m not sure that the in-room version is more stressful for students overall. When I was a student, I actually preferred the three-hour scribble-fest, partly because I liked the challenge, and partly because the thing got done and was out of the way. Take-homes meant a lot more time and energy in a month when both things were in short supply.

Secondly, the in-room exam is a check against plagiarism. As with regular essays, answers to take-homes can be cut-and-pasted or commissioned. One might mitigate that risk with a quick turnaround time (say making the answers due within a day or two), but such an exam is not even permitted at my university, and a quick search turns up an essay writing service that will provide custom-written papers in as little as six hours!

But apart from sneaking a peak at someone else’s paper—not particularly helpful for an essay answer—the in-room exam means you actually have to show what you know.

Most importantly, though, the in-room exam tests a different, but equally important, set of skills. A take-home assignment of any kind provides the leisure to re-read key texts, to research important facts, to try out various lines of argument and modify and adjust them. These are all legitimate, of course, but there are times when one does not have the luxury of ample time to think about things. Sometimes one is presented with a question or problem and asked to give suggestions toward an answer almost right away. Sometimes—whether in a classroom, or a boardroom, or a courtroom—one literally has to think fast. A good education should help train you to do that.

And that’s why I think the in-room exam, at least for some courses, is indispensable. Assignments test what you can do when time is on your side; the in-room exam tests what you can do when the clock is ticking. And so, for now at least, my students will have to keep writing those exams, and I will keep grading them. No matter how much I hate it.